At Seventeen

A seventeen year old boy has died at the Reading Festival this year. This is a tragic event for him-his young life ended just as it was beginning-and for his parents, family and friends. It set me thinking back to my life at seventeen.

Seventeen is an ‘in-between’ age, at once awkward, daring, angst-ridden and thrilling. You’ll be on the verge of leaping from childhood into adulthood, preparing for university or employment, marriage [as my mother was] or parenthood. Janis Ian’s heartfelt ‘At Seventeen’ describes the longing and the turmoil involved in being the age:

‘And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone’

As a seventeen year old and the youngest in our family I appeared to have been granted a lot of freedom for the time [the late 60s]. The hippy period was underway. I had a suitably Lennon-esque, guitar-playing boyfriend with a car. We roamed the county in search of music gigs, getting to see everyone from Fairport Convention and Family to John Heisman’s Coliseum and Chicken Shack. I wore long, trailing skirts and often went barefoot out of school hours. I went on camping trips in a group that consisted of all boys, trusted by my mother because the boyfriend and all the others were choirboys! Little did she guess…

We experimented with weed, drank more than we could cope with, spent long nights listening to entire albums [LPs as they were] by our favourite musicians. When I was left at home for many weekends while my parents went to help out with caring for my sick grandfather I either spent the days at the boyfriend’s, lolling about in his bedroom while his mother made meals for us, or holding impromptu, drunken parties in my own parent-free home. The aftermath of these drunken and weed-ridden bashes meant Sundays attempting to clean up and formulating explanations for broken items, aromas or stains.

At the watershed that was end of school and start of student life, Boyfriend and I went our separate ways, figuratively and literally-he to Sheffield and I to London. When I announced to my mother that a subsequent Boyfriend and I were to share a flat she astounded me by being outraged, spluttering ‘You needn’t think you are doing that in this house!’ Could she really have had no idea at all about my activities as a seventeen-year-old?

My own, post-Aids era offspring were of course more circumspect, more grounded and less wild. They grew up in the Margaret Thatcher, shoulder-pad years and without the benefits of student grants; with 80s music, Rubik’s Cubes and Angel Delight.

Parenting is tough. Kids can’t be sheltered forever. You have to arm them with common sense and knowledge of the facts, be there when needed and then let them go-with fingers crossed tightly behind your back. You might be horribly unlucky, as were the parents of the boy at the festival or you might be fortunate, as were my own, blissfully ignorant parents.

Advertisements

History Lessons

What will be said, in the future, about the events of the twenty first century?

We still read, write and discuss wars and atrocities of the past. It is constantly said that the ghastly horrors of The Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again. We think that we’ve made progress and we’ve moved on. There are historical novels detailing civil wars, world wars, unspeakable acts perpetrated by countries against others, individuals against their own nations, extremist religious groups against innocent fellow countrymen, random acts of cruelty and subjugation. Movies are made-sometimes heroic, sometimes merely grisly.

Getting towards the later part of life leads to a lot of reflection, which can be irritating for younger generations but is inevitable. They’ll be doing it, too when the time comes.

I remember how horrified and frightened my mother was at the end of her life by the news that an Australian nurse working in Saudi Arabia had received the punitive sentence of some extreme number of lashes. It was more than twenty years ago. Supposing she were around today to learn that dozens of children and teenagers have had their lives and the lives of their families destroyed by a random, pointless deed?

I also remember that Offspring 2 was at uni in London during the events of the July 2007 tube and bus bombings. I was at work on that day and only discovered during a coffee break that the atrocity had occurred. I remember the feeling of terror and foreboding as I tried to reach her by phone and the powerful waves of relief as I finally heard her voice. She’d missed the events by an eyelash, returning to fetch forgotten keys and then attempting to catch a later train. She was stranded but alive. It seemed all that mattered then.

How easy it is to say, ‘We will not be cowed. We will not be threatened and forced to change how we live!’ These are the words of those untouched by the violence and loss.

But the lives of those whose children or parents are lost or maimed have been changed for ever.

There is less of my life in front than behind now. My concerns are more for those generations below mine; with how their lives will pan out and a part of me wants to know how it will be for them in the future. Looking at history in terms of human nature I think it unlikely that there will ever be true ‘peace on Earth’. More probable is the likelihood that climate change will have escalated and usurped human nature in terms of threats.

But what will be learned in history? Because the world seems incapable of learning anything from history so far…

 

Ditch the Bucket-

By the time you read this we’ll be wending our way into the next adventure.

If anyone were to ask me what the most important ways to enjoy retirement were I’d have to say having adventures.

Adventures come in many forms. They may entail travelling somewhere, but travel is not essential to having escapades. All I’m saying is escape from routine is a requirement of happy life. It doesn’t matter what the escape is. A visit somewhere different, an encounter with someone new, learning a skill, joining a shared initiative-these are all adventures, as was the move to a new house we made last year.

A friend who, [by her own careful, clever planning], achieved early retirement tackles a different, arty hobby each year. Some enterprising older folks in Devon have established a business growing and marketing oysters-and have provided employment for many younger people along the way.

You hear a great deal about ‘bucket lists’. In my view these smack of the ghastly ‘targets’ that those of us who are retired are so relieved to have left behind. You don’t want your adventures to be a source of anxiety. It is a blessing to be flexible, to be able to change your mind, revise plans. As we age there are going to be many things we’ll never do, skills we won’t learn, marathons we won’t run, places we’ll never visit, foods we won’t eat, books we won’t read and plays we won’t see.

Three years ago we’d a mind to escape the chilly UK spring and take our camper van down to the Spanish Mediterranean coast where we would visit friends and find somewhere without too much development to enjoy some sunshine [not an easy undertaking, as those who know that coastline will know]. Passing heaps of scruffy snow in northern France we got down as far as Bordeaux and realised the temperatures were not likely to improve any time soon, so took the decision to turn right instead of left, aiming for Portugal. As soon as we crossed the border from Spain it was warm sunshine all the way. Result!

Of course much is published about the poor, subsequent generations and how we, the Boomers have robbed them blind and how they’ll be working themselves into their graves. Most of us, however have done all we can to support our children through further education and beyond, while also caring for aged parents. But having read that life expectancy is increasing by five hours per day I feel that our children and grandchildren, too will enjoy the benefits of retirement, albeit at a later age. I’ve pledged to do my utmost not to be a burden to them when they get there!

Until that time I remain unapologetic about enjoying our freedom. I imagine there may well be a time when I’ll only be able to enjoy the photos and the memories so I’m making sure there will be some to look back on…

 

The Crackling Feast [Part 2]

As Alex’s repugnance at the hog roast grows, her sister Chrissie’s appetite for the savoury treat increases. Chrissie and Simon seem to have developed a relationship. What have they been up to? And where has Jacintha gone?

The Crackling Feast concludes today. Part one is in the previous post.

 

Their father had been unusual in leaving express instructions that he didn’t want a funeral. He’d wanted this; a celebration, party, get together-call it what you like. He’d left it to Jacintha to issue invitations so she’d been surprised to have received the card-an elaborate, hand-painted creation on Jacintha’s own, customised, recycled paper. The woman had not been immune to the sisters’ antipathy, since they’d been at best Luke-warm when they’d greeted her at their infrequent meetings with their father. She must have realised she was the reason their visits had dwindled to annually, duty stops while en route somewhere. ‘Just a cup of tea, don’t want to put you to any trouble’. Jacintha would produce some herbal infusion picked from the hedgerows and proffer something inedible like nettle scones with tofu. It occurs to Alex now that these efforts may have been attempts to buy their approval, though in her own unorthodox way. Their father never commented on their lack of warmth towards his new wife, nor did he complain at the sporadic nature of their visits. Perhaps he felt it was the price he’d paid for her, for Jacintha; to lose the affections of his daughters.

Chrissie and Simon have settled at a table with their plates of hog roast. Chrissie appears to have overcome her repugnance and is tucking into a pork roll with gusto in between slugs of wine and peals of laughter at whatever Simon Patterson is saying. She glances at Alex then says something to him before getting up and approaching her, stumbling a little on her spindly heels. She sits down and drapes an arm around her younger sister, close enough for Alex to smell her hot, grease and wine laden breath.

“You should get something to eat, Alex. It’s really very good.”

“In a minute.” Alex stares at her lap. She and Chrissie have grown apart, their mother having been the glue that cemented their closeness as sisters. Now they rarely see each other and on the occasions when they do they’ve only had the one same conversation, one shared dislike of Jacintha. After a few minutes she allows Christina to pull her up and tow her to the table where Simon still sits and accept the glass of wine her gets for her. The plate she is handed is loaded with a pork roll, cole-slaw, apple sauce and a heap of greasy crackling, brown scored skin with a few blackened hairs still clinging. She nibbles at the roll and salad.

“So you’ve left the family at home then, Alex?” Simon Patterson is making an attempt at small talk. She shrugs. “It didn’t seem fair to drag them up here.”

Chrissie makes a face. “I’d have got to see my nephews! You’ve deprived me of the pleasure!” Alex looks sideways at her sister, who has never been shy about expressing her dislike of children.

The solicitor continues “She is quite a character though, Jacintha-a strange choice for your father to have made, don’t you think? All those odd tattoos in Greek letters and the dreadlocks?”

Alex puts her plastic fork down. “I suppose she made him feel younger-and I expect he got lonely. You must know where she is now though, don’t you? You must have been acting for them both-for Jacintha and our father?”

Chrissie is watching them, her small, white teeth nibbling on a piece of pork scratching. There are faint vestiges of blue ink near her fingers, indicating that this must be from the etched area of pig. Alex feels her stomach lurch as she recalls Jacintha’s ample, decorated thighs. Simon laughs. “All will be revealed” he tells her as the distant ringing of a spoon against a glass signals silence among the revellers.

The vicar asks for their indulgence, rising from his seat, paper in hand. He has a message for all of them, from Jacintha:

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all having a wonderful afternoon in the sunshine enjoying the good company, the delicious food and wine and the memories.

Edgar and I were only together for a short time before he was cruelly taken but for me it was the happiest time of my whole life…

Alex glances at her sister, who raises her eyes to heaven.

I ask you to understand that I am not able to be with you today to celebrate Edgar’s life as it is too soon for me to face people who knew us as a couple. In order to grieve I am leaving for pastures new and will be settling in Corfu where I am setting up a studio in order that my emotions can find an outlet in my work.

So it’s ‘Goodbye’. Bless you all and enjoy the remainder of the party.

In Edgar’s memory

Jacintha.

There is a pause before the guests begin to murmur again. Chrissie is still clutching the spear of pig skin marked in blue ink. Alex sees her peer at it, then across at Simon Patterson who returns her look with an almost imperceptible wink.

 

Personal Effects

I can never remember my parents buying any furniture, or visiting a furniture shop. The things we had-tables, chairs, beds, ‘suites’-they seemed to have been there always, moving house when we did, packed away into a removal van and taken out at the next house; then fitted into whatever space there was. A number of pieces were inherited, accumulated over the years. My mother could say who they’d belonged to: ‘That’s Great Aunty Mabel’s cabinet’ and so on.

Back then you used whatever you’d been given without a thought of renewing or even choosing something. This approach continued as I entered adult life and moved from renting places [where you put up with whatever eclectic mix the landlord had assembled] into home ownership.

Later, becoming single again and beginning home ownership once more, but with less cash the luxury of choice was tempered by limited funds. I could choose, but from whatever was in the skip, at the council recycling depot or if feeling flush-at the junk shop and the small ads. Each acquisition felt like a triumph, whether coming home from the council rubbish dump with some brass coat hooks on a pine base or discovering a French, inlaid walnut bed outside a second-hand shop.

Pairing up with Husband meant pairing up the belongings, too. Collapsing two households full of effects into one is a tricky business when both householders have struggled to amass said items in the first place. There were lively discussions, debates and compromises. A number of fiercely contested pieces followed us into the home we bought together-happily a stomping great house that was capable of accommodating every treasured, hard-fought-over object, whether treasured or detested.

Waiting almost six months for the next move-a move that almost didn’t happen-we shed items in a gradual purge, resulting in a refreshing, minimalistic environment containing two camping chairs and a TV. This was an echo of my house as a new singleton, albeit a temporary phase in the limbo between homes. We’d agreed that the new house was neither suited to our collected contents nor did it contain the right spaces and therefore we cast caution into the teeth of the gale and got rid.

I let my fingers do the walking [remember that old ‘Yellow Pages’ ad?] with varying degrees of success. A set of six, white, Charles Eames style dining chairs arrived as a set of five. ‘Who buys five?’ I asked Monsieur Customer Support, who agreed it would be unusual. Husband is something of a traditionalist when it comes to furniture and was [and continues to be] less enthusiastic about my choice, although I conceded over the selection of the TV housing. Compromises continue to be made.

Like the house, we haven’t mourned the passing of our old belongings. It is, after all just ‘stuff’. But a couple of boxes still lurk under the bed in a guest room. They contain ‘stuff’ from the old place, ‘stuff’ we don’t know what to do with; ‘stuff’ that may, perhaps get passed on to the next generation-so they can ditch it…

What’s in a Name?

Giving someone a name is a weighty responsibility. Parents-to-be could do worse than wile away the months of waiting by pondering which names will give their new arrival the best start in life. They should take care. It may be tempting to follow trends or get carried away with the idea of using the name of your favourite footballer, actor or rap artist; the allure of an invented name may be strong, or perhaps the use of an iconic place, weather condition or season. Research however suggests that names carry a heavy influence in the lottery of life’s successes and failures. Want your child to attend a prestigious university? Name your son James or Simon, your daughter, Eleanor.

A fiction writer building up a character can convey a great deal in the selection of their name. Gender, age, social class and nationality can all be carried in this one word. Hilda, Ivy, Albert or Fred? You know which generation they are from. Gillian, Susan, Peter or Colin? You know these too, although of course some names ‘come back’ into fashion [‘Alfie’ and ‘Stanley’ are two of these].

Teachers who become parents have a more difficult task in naming their offspring. The pool of possibilities will be shallower, since most names will carry connotations. The classrooms of my past are littered with negative memories of ‘Jasons’, ‘Waynes’, ‘Sharons’ and ‘Traceys’. For some mysterious reason, as soon as I went public with my firstborn’s name, proud of having selected something neither outlandish nor too ubiquitous, there was an explosion of the name-the hospital nursery bursting at the seams with them so that my son was destined always to share his name with thousands across his peer group.

Teachers are also used to bearing witness to parents’ inabilities in the field of spelling. Many children begin school [and life] saddled with an eccentric and misspelt name. Parents-bear in mind that your child’s teacher will have to begin the school year by compiling numerous class lists for a wide variety of purposes. If you furnish your little one with a long, hyphenated and complicated moniker this is going to be both time consuming and aggravating for their teacher, especially coupled with double-barrelled surnames, which consistently fail to fit into any sort of grid.

I loved the recent story of the research ship that was the subject of an on line competition to find a name. One wag’s suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’, though not meant to be taken seriously became a clear favourite and attracted more than 18,000 votes, an endorsement that serves to show the British sense of humour is alive and kicking, even if the instigators of the competition are intending to overrule the choice.

 

Parents-All you need is Love

Facebook has a lot to answer for. Worst at this time of year, there is a deluge of those brief [or lengthy] homilies paying tribute to loved ones, alive or deceased, although more often deceased. I’m not knocking this. If such tributes help the bereaved to feel better that is fine by me. You have to assume that folks posting up these ready-made eulogies had/have close relationships with their parent/offspring/best friend and now they miss them. Fair enough.

I can’t help feeling curious, however about the composers of these tracts. Are they paid to write them? Or do they sit at their computers thinking up heart-tugging sayings and finding photographs of misty sunsets to accompany their writings out of the goodness of their hearts? Are they, perhaps cast-offs from greetings card manufacturers who’ve gone out of business now that paper is turning to digital?

Anyway, it is good to find that parent/child relationships are strong enough for such offerings to be utilised on a regular basis. Myself, as an adult I had an uneasy relationship with my parents, whose disapproval of some of my lifestyle choices eclipsed the affections they held when I was younger. This was sad but had the beneficial effect of teaching me a strong lesson regarding my own offspring, whose choices, whatever I may think, are their own.

Last week America had its own taste of terrorism when a couple who’d become radicalised went on a shooting spree, gunning down fourteen innocent workers at a disability centre in San Bernardino. Sadly these incidents no longer surprise or even shock us in the way that ‘9/11’ did. They have become all too common, all too frequent. The attack was, of course devastating and horrific for the injured and the bereaved, as well as those who had the unenviable task of dealing with it all.

But amongst the horrifying, stupid destruction of life, one overwhelming, distressing issue stood out for me. They idiotic, foolish perpetrators of this horror were not only a married couple, they also had a tiny, helpless six-month-old baby daughter. Film of their apartment shows the interior filled with baby items; toys, soft animals, a cot, tins of baby milk. They did not mistreat the infant. She was not abandoned. She was well cared for. She must have been loved. They took her to family members and left her in their care. Then they gathered their arsenal of weapons and went off to kill as many fellow humans as they could before getting themselves executed.

Someone has to care for and bring up their child. One day she will want to know who her parents were. She will want to know how they died and why; the truth. This is her legacy. This is what her mother left her, the fact that she so loathed her fellow human beings she wanted to kill them. This was a human mother without even as much instinctive love for her baby as a wild animal, and this is what I find the hardest to understand or accept.